Exclusive: Support for the “war on drugs” has eroded so much that anti-drug-war hoax statements from senior officials sounded plausible even to the mainstream media, writes Jonathan Marshall.
By Jonathan Marshall
In 1998, assembled delegates to the United Nations vowed to largely eliminate the world drug problem within a decade. Eighteen years later, of course, the problem is bigger than ever. This April 19-21, the UN held its next global summit on drug control in New York City, with less laughable results.
The acronym for the event — UNGASS — suggested that the proceedings might consist of the usual political hot air and flatulent speeches. But some news accounts of the event reported a remarkable change of heart among world leaders — away from the century-long policy of law enforcement and crop eradication in favor of radical alternatives like drug legalization.
The Los Angeles Times quoted Yuri Fedotov, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), as saying, “The science increasingly supports decriminalization and harm reduction over proscriptive, fear-based approaches. It’s time to reverse the cycles of violence that occur wherever ‘drug wars’ are undertaken, and to abandon policies that exacerbate suffering.”
The newspaper also quoted a spokesman for the international drug agency, Kevin Campo, in the same vein: “We can begin to dismantle ‘just say no’ policies that result in millions needlessly killed and incarcerated — and that defy logic and science — and instead bring to the forefront humane solutions that are known to work.”
Alas, those decent and informed sentiments proved to be a hoax. Kevin Campo doesn’t exist, and Fedotov never said the words ascribed to him in a fake press release, probably engineered by supporters of marijuana legalization.
A second fake news release, also attributed to UNODC, exposed the first one as a hoax. It explained that “Although many UN member states now consider decriminalization a viable way to reduce drug violence, corruption, and mass incarceration, the UN has yet to adopt a more progressive policy due to a few states like Russia, China, and the United States, who persist in employing and promoting heavily punitive drug policies.”
It quoted a real spokesperson for the agency as saying, “Citizens of deadbeat states like the USA, Russia, and China must lobby their governments if they want to see change. . . Sadly, without better state policy, home growing [of pot] is the only way for a user to opt out of the cycle of violence.”
A Spoof Illustrating a Changed Reality
As the spoof itself illustrated, however, this U.N. conclave actually did achieve something: unlike the dismal 1998 summit, it provided a venue for voices of sanity to question the “war on drugs” that has consumed countless lives and untold billions of dollars in a fruitless effort to repeal the law of supply and demand.
The New York Times, for example, was spurred by the event to call on the U.S. government to “play a much stronger role in shaping new policies,” such as drug decriminalization, that “could render the existing drug treaties obsolete.”
Leading international human rights organizations, echoing a sharply worded report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, used the conference to call attention to “the human rights abuses and violations that arise in the context of drug control policies and counter-narcotic operations,” including executions, torture, and relentless militarization of “public security and policing.”
The World Health Organization condemned the traditional focus on law enforcement strategies for fighting drugs and called for alternative measures “grounded in the fundamental public health precepts of equity and social justice, [and] human rights.”
Meanwhile, more than a thousand activists and celebrities—including Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, former Secretary of State George Shultz, two former presidents of Mexico, a former president of Brazil, and many other world leaders — sent UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon an open letter declaring that the criminalization of drugs over the past century “has proven disastrous for global health, security and human rights.”
Drug control, their letter continued, has “created a vast illicit market that has enriched criminal organizations, corrupted governments, triggered explosive violence, distorted economic markets and undermined basic moral values.”
A Colombian Course Correction
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, representing one of the world’s leading “source” countries for illicit drugs, used the forum to condemn the “repression” of small growers — a policy demanded by Washington and backed up over the years by arms, herbicides, police and military training, and threats to cut off aid for non-compliance.
“After so many lives that have been destroyed, after so much corruption and so much violence, after so many young people being marched off to jail, can we say that we have won the war (on drugs) or at least that we are winning it?” Santos asked. “Unfortunately the answer is ‘no.’”
Santos also asked, “How do you explain to a humble Colombian farmer that he’s going to jail because he’s growing marijuana when anybody in Colorado or Washington in the U.S., anybody at all, can grow marijuana, sell it and consume it freely? It simply doesn’t make sense.”
Santos has taken Colombia in a sharply different direction than that of his conservative predecessor Alvaro Uribe, who was long favored by Washington despite (or because of) his support for right-wing, drug-trafficking paramilitary groups.
Santos is working to conclude peace talks with two Marxist guerrilla groups that have engaged in drug trafficking to finance their rebellions. His success would not only bring Colombia welcome relief from decades of violence, but would likely also create better conditions for encouraging peasants to substitute commercial crops for coca, cannabis, or poppies.
Other leaders in the Americas have also broken with the status quo. Uruguay legalized the possession and sale of marijuana; Mexico says it intends to ease restrictions on personal use of pot, and so does the new government of Canada. In 2012, the then-president of Guatemala called for international legalization of drugs.
Advocates of ending the war on drugs point to documented harm reduction from drug decriminalization programs in Portugal, Switzerland and Holland. Evidence also suggests that the growing movement to decriminalize marijuana use in some U.S. states has cut sharply into the sales of Mexican drug cartels.
The Obama administration has tread with extreme caution to deflect partisan charges of being “soft” on drugs. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement calling for “a pragmatic approach that better balances public health and law enforcement” while still attacking international trafficking organizations. President Obama has previously offered reformist words, but through his appointments and budget priorities has continued to support traditional “drug war” policies that fill prisons with non-violent criminals, militarize police forces, and devastate communities of color.
The wisdom of those failed policies is more open to question than ever thanks to the recently ended U.N. summit.
As the Open Society Foundations observed recently, “Never before have so many governments voiced displeasure with the international drug control regime. Never before, to this degree, have citizens put drug law reform on the agenda and passed regulatory proposals via referenda or by popular campaigns. Never before have the health benefits of harm reduction approaches — which prevent overdose and transmission of diseases like HIV — been clearer. For the first time, there is significant dissent at the local, national, and international levels.”
Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]